Is the UC system too good to get its act together?

August 24, 2007 

University of California President Robert Dynes’ biggest problem wasn’t extravagance; it was tackiness, much of it inherited.

Dynes, who is being nudged out by the regents in the same generous and collegial spirit that helped fuel last year’s great brouhaha over executive pay, sinned not so much by commission as by get-along avoidance.

Yet Dynes’ departure may be an opportunity for UC to get things right on a range of issues that go beyond administrative compensation and, in some ways, to the nature and structure of the university itself.

Next to executive pay at other major universities — not to mention the pay packages of UC football and basketball coaches — UC’s executive compensation was modest. But in trying to compete with elite private universities to get the people they wanted — or in some cases just to stroke each other — UC leaders tried to make up with under-the-table perks what they felt they couldn’t offer in straight pay in a public university with rising tuition.

The topper was a $30,000 dog run for the chancellor at UC-Santa Cruz. But all told, the undisclosed bennies — off-the-books sabbaticals, jobs for significant others, comfy retirement packages — added up to no more than a few million in a $20 billion budget. Nor was there any hint that executives were lining their own pockets.

When he became president in 2003, Dynes was paid $395,000 a year.

In the same year, Mary Sue Coleman of the University of Michigan was getting $725,000, Mark Yudof, head of the University of Texas system, was getting close to $700,000 and many presidents of private universities were making a lot more. At last count, seven were getting $1 million or more.

But are all those deputy assistant vice presidents and deputy provosts necessary? Even Regents Chairman Richard Blum believes that UC’s central administration with its “layers of bureaucracy” has grown too large and is “semi-dysfunctional.”

More fundamentally, said Pat Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, UC is caught in an impossible bind: maintaining the myth that all of UC’s 10 campuses are equal and should be treated in the same way that it treats its premier research institutions at Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego. Should the base pay of a professor at Merced be the same as the pay at Berkeley? Given the shrinking share of overall expenses that state funding now provides, Callan believes UC has to decide between equity for 10 campuses and maintaining the prestige of the top campuses as one of the best research universities in the world.

Is the system, which is unique in its size and scope, simply too big and complex to be run as a single institution by a single administration? Is it too incestuous, with presidents almost inevitably chosen from the inside and a corresponding sense of entitlement among those near the head of the line?

The much-publicized problems of the past few years — in the organ-transplant program at the UC-Irvine medical school, in the perks for administrators, in the apparent mismanagement of the nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore — are hardly new (or even, in the case of missing computers at the labs, unique among similar institutions).

During another state fiscal crisis in the early 1990s, President David Gardner retired with a lavish pension package negotiated in better times but which hit just when tuition was rising sharply, programs were being cut and undergraduates were waiting hopelessly to register for required classes that were too crowded for them to get into. The resulting uproar was not very different from the one that hit Dynes in 2005-06.

In those same years, UC, instead of looking for other efficiencies, offered an across-the-board package of early retirements to some of its best teachers and researchers. Many quickly got jobs at other universities.

The responsibility doesn’t begin at the university’s door. It begins with a tax-averse Legislature that’s quick to cut funding for higher education when budgets are tight and almost as quick to increase it and lower fees when things get better. The result is a boom-bust roller coaster that makes reasonable financial planning by students and parents nearly impossible.

And as Murray Haberman of the California Post-secondary Education Commission argues, policymakers better also concern themselves with broader funding questions — with affordability and access at a time when students are graduating with increasingly heavy loans to repay, which he says average close to $50,000 among students with debt.

UC has an unmatched reputation among public research universities.

But that reputation may also foster insularity in the executive suites and an unavoidable conflict with its status as a taxpayer-supported public institution, even in an era when taxpayers pay a shrinking share of the bill.

On both counts, more openness is obviously necessary. And at a moment like this, some radical re-examination of old ways and ideas, from both inside and outside, wouldn’t hurt, either.

Write the author at pschrag@sacbee.com.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service